Rising and falling: Six surprise teams of the 2017 NFL season
In every NFL season, there is at least one team with Super Bowl aspirations to fall well short of expectations.
The 2016 Carolina Panthers would be an example of such a team. After going 15-1 in 2015 and advancing to the Super Bowl, Carolina entered the 2016 season as a favourite in the NFC, but they faltered badly, finishing 6-10 and missing the playoffs.
Conversely, there always seems to be at least one club not expected to perform that winds up making a postseason push. Super Bowl-winning teams like the '81 San Francisco 49ers, '99 St Louis Rams and '01 New England Patriots are the best examples in the 'worst-to-first' club.
Who could be this year's surprise teams, either falling short of or exceeding expectations?
Here are three candidates for each scenario.
ON THE UP
Carolina Panthers -- A season removed from their Super Bowl 50 loss, the Panthers should bounce back after finishing last in the NFC South. Carolina have a healthy Cam Newton and added dynamic rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. The NFC South might be the most competitive division in football this season and the Panthers should be near the top in December.
Philadelphia Eagles -- The Eagles started hot last year before Carson Wentz started to look like a rookie. With a year of seasoning, Wentz and the Eagles should improve on last season's 7-9 mark. Philadelphia added receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, as well as cornerback Ronald Darby and veteran defensive end Chris Long. Draft picks Derek Barnett and Rasul Douglas should improve a defense that ranked 13th overall last season.
Los Angeles Chargers -- Whether through injuries or other misfortunes, the Chargers have had a recent knack of disappointing. Expectations are not incredibly high this season, their first since leaving San Diego, with the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs considered favourites in the AFC West and the Chargers widely viewed as the divisions' weakest outfit. The Bolts might not win the division, but Philip Rivers has enough offensive weapons around him to go with an improved defense that could get the Chargers into the playoffs.
Dallas Cowboys -- The Cowboys were a surprise team last season, going from 4-12 in 2015 to 13-3 and winning the NFC East last year. The Cowboys will regress this year, and an upheld six-game suspension to Ezekiel Elliott will be a big reason why. Elliott led the NFL last season as a rookie with 1,631 yards and Dallas will miss his productivity. Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris will get some yards, thanks to the best offensive line in football, but the Cowboys' downfall will be a vulnerable defense that was only marginally improved in the offseason.
Houston Texans -- The Texans won the AFC South last season despite poor quarterback play and not having All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt for 13 games. The Texans jettisoned quarterback Brock Osweiler and have Watt back on the NFL's top defense. But they could still struggle to make the playoffs, mainly because the Tennessee Titans -- who tied the Texans last season with a 9-7 record -- are much more improved. The AFC South is still the worst division in football and the Titans appear to be the only playoff contender in the group.
Detroit Lions -- The Lions went 9-7 and reached the playoffs last season, but haven't made the postseason in consecutive campaigns since 1993-95. It is difficult to see them bucking that trend this year following an underwhelming offseason. The Green Bay Packers are still the class of the NFC North and the Minnesota Vikings, who were 8-8 last year, have surpassed the Lions. Detroit fans are used to riding the proverbial roller coaster from year to year and this season looks like being no different despite high expectations.